What happened when I tried to mediate a panel discussion on ministering to gay teenagers at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference, and what it looks like to move into this volatile issue with biblical balance, wisdom, and redemptive influence.
PLUS: "Failing My Way Forward"
by Jeffrey Wallace
In early March I had one of the most intense ministry experiences of my life. The leaders of the Simply Youth Ministry Conference (SYMC), the same people who put this magazine together, asked me to help mediate a panel discussion at the conference, called "Ministering to Homosexual and 'Bi-Curious' Teenagers." More than 100 youth workers crowded into the room, and I could feel the tension when I walked through the door.
The idea was to create a mediated space for healthy conversation, but the gathering quickly turned into an intense debate in a room filled with angry youth leaders. At the end, as people filed out, I overheard the sorts of remarks that leave a big stink on your soul: "This was a big waste of time" and "We accomplished NOTHING!" and "This panel avoided the real questions and issues!" I left the panel more discouraged than encouraged.
Looking back on this experience I realize it was simply a metaphor, or a prime example, for a broader truth: The youth ministry world is completely divided on a crucial and sensitive issue. Namely, we don't agree on how to effectively minister to gays and lesbians. We don't agree on the "right" biblical position on homosexuality. We don't agree on the "severity" of the sin of homosexuality, or even if it is a sin. What we have is a big elephant in the room.
The tension that erupted into full-blown conflict at SYMC is just a symptom of a larger dilemma facing youth workers: We are caught between biblical imperatives about morality and biblical imperatives about compassion and acceptance. Meanwhile, teenagers all across America (both churched and unchurched) are inundated with visual messages about sex and sexuality.
The wider culture proclaims: "Any sexual lifestyle is okay" and "Be who you are" and "You were born this way." But the church says: "Homosexuality is a sin" and "Live a life of purity" and "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." The wider culture embraces and accepts, while the church makes jokes and callous remarks. And we wonder why our Christian teenagers are confused, and why the unchurched teenagers we're trying to reach aren't interested in what we have to offer.
THE CHURCH AS A HOSTILE REFUGE
Most social researchers say the percentage of gay and lesbian teenagers in the U.S. ranges from 4 to 10 percent (however, new research pegs it at 1.4 percent). I've been a youth pastor for 15 years, and I can guarantee that you have teenagers in your group who are currently struggling with this issue in some way.
• Some have been molested, raped, or abused and they're confused about their sexuality.
• Others have seen or heard things that have distorted their self-image and the way they see others of the same sex.
• Others have been raised to identify primarily with opposite-gender traits—the boy who prefers music and arts over sports and video games or the girl who's more interested in sports and sneakers than make-up and high heels. Because their peers sometimes label them as "gay" because of these preferences, they can be shamed into experimenting with same-sex activities.
Unfortunately for these teenagers, their struggles and hurts must remain secret. Their church is supposed to be a place of refuge, but for many it has morphed into a place of isolation. A typical response to those who are struggling with homosexual thoughts or temptations is rooted in 1 Corinthians 6: "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Don't be deceived; neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulteress nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkard nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (verses 9-10, italics are mine).
Our response so often stops with verse 10, lopping off the verse 11 postscript that is crucial for our ministry mindset: "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God."
The Bible is very clear on so many things—in particular, it provides hope for every sinner. God's grace can transform any situation, circumstance, or lifestyle. Paul's point in 1 Corinthians 6 is that we ALL run the risk of being excluded from the kingdom of God by our sin, and each of us has an equal need for God's grace. But gays and lesbians are often treated like modern-day lepers. They feel alienated, isolated, unloved, misunderstood, and unwelcomed in most youth groups. So they gravitate to others in the gay and lesbian community because it's the only place where they feel loved and accepted.
WRESTLING OUT A BALANCED RESPONSE
As a youth pastor I've attended workshops, seminars, and conferences that aim to help me learn how to engage teenagers living in a challenging culture. I've worked hard and learned much about communicating truth in the context of a Christian worldview. I'm confident in my ability to stand before teenagers and teach God's Word, point them to relevant scripture passages, and debate their points of concern. But I've learned through painful experience that I've not been nearly as well-prepared as I thought I was when the focus turns to homosexuality. Because my preparation has been weak, I haven't always responded as I've hoped I would.
This is hard for me to admit, because I know my teenagers live in an increasingly permissive culture and, therefore, need my help if they're going to be relevant witnesses for Christ. It's imperative that we teach them an accurate and Christ-honoring response to homosexual behavior. They must learn how to offer a balanced response that doesn't compromise the truth but demonstrates God's grace and mercy. Jesus, of course, is the source of all balance—the Bible is full of stories that highlight his wise engagement with culture.
One example is in John 8, when Jesus deals with a woman who's caught in the act of adultery. The way Jesus interacts with this woman, and the surrounding crowd, is a template for our own interactions with homosexuals and the church community:
1. First, Jesus protects the woman from being attacked. The crowd wants to throw stones at her, but Jesus prevents that from happening. Instead, he reminds them of their own unrighteousness.
2. Second, Jesus honors, respects, and restores the woman. When the crowd leaves, he turns to her and speaks truth into her life. In the mist of her mess, and at her lowest point, he communicates self worth, purpose, and value. He acknowledges the woman's sin, but he tells her that she is not condemned. God does not deal with our sin by condemning us—instead, he uses conviction, grace, mercy, and hope to draw us to him.
3. Third, Jesus offers the woman hope and renewal. He offers her forgiveness and newness of life. And he also gives her a charge: "From now on sin no more."
Take a hard look at the environment that infuses your youth group. If you knew a couple of teenagers were struggling with issues related to their sexuality, would they feel welcome? Would they want to come back after a first visit or would they be turned off by your church? As leaders in the postmodern era, have we built a ministry environment that looks more like a courtroom for lawbreakers or a hospital for the hurting? These are hard and healthy questions, and here's how I'm trying to answer them in my own ministry.
1. Speak Truth and Correction Across the Board
God speaks to ALL sin equally, and we should as well. When I explore biblical truths with my teenagers, I'm focusing more on the Bible and less on my own opinions. Paul told Timothy to "correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2). So don't be afraid to put an end to inappropriate conversation, activity, and behavior within your ministry—be gentle, but direct. But don't elevate some sins over others.
2. It Starts With You
I love this quote from John Maxwell, the Christian leadership guru: "We teach what we know, but we reproduce who we are." How do you interact with people who identify as gays and lesbians? Do you model love or do you model stereotypes? Your teenagers will, in the end, follow what you model.
3. Rethink the Way You Speak
Challenge your teenagers to banish offensive speech, including "you homo," "you fag," and "that's so gay." These statements have no place in the body of Christ—your teenagers should sense that youth group is a "no-offense" zone. It's never okay to laugh and joke at the expense of another.
4. Clearly Define God's Position on Sin
When you focus on homosexuality, be clear that God hates ALL sins—not just the homosexual ones. He hates pride, jealously, envy, selflessness, lying, lust, and so much more. Your teenagers need to be reminded that, in the eyes of God, all sin is ugly. God wants us to love and witness to the straight sinners as well as the gay and lesbian sinners. Your teenagers need to know that God doesn't view sin on a continuum. He sees us all in need of grace. And when all your teenagers understand their own need for grace and forgiveness, it'll be difficult for them to throw stones at others.
5. Always Model Love
Jesus is our living example of unconditional "agape" love. Whether he's healing the blind, encouraging a Samaritan woman, or giving hope to a woman who just committed adultery, his love for people remains the same. Your kids need to know that showing love to gay or lesbian teenagers will not compromise their relationship with Jesus—instead, they'll be living out his heart for them.
Some things in ministry, just as in life, are non-optional. Finding a way to address the wider culture's approach to homosexuality is non-optional. If we don't move toward our teenagers in a balanced, biblically sound, and loving way, we are abandoning them to the prevailing currents that swirl around them.
Jeffrey is the longtime pastor of youth development at a church in Georgia, and is a track leader at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference (youthministry.com/conference).
FAILING MY WAY FORWARD
by Jeffrey Wallace
I've had to learn how to handle hard issues the hard way. Several years ago my youth group had several gay and lesbian teenagers in it. One of them, Kristle, I knew very well. Her oldest sister had already come through the youth group, and her mother was very involved in our church's children's ministry. From the outside, Kristle and her family appeared normal and healthy. But on the inside, she was struggling to keep a secret that she knew would rock her family to the core.
At the time I thought I had ministered to Kristle and her family in a loving and biblical way. But I've just come back from interviewing Kristle, who's now a young adult, and I've learned my efforts were far less effective than I realized. I asked her to tell me about her path toward homosexuality, and how she experienced my influence along the way. This is what she said:
I grew up in the church, as long as I can remember. I came to this church after moving from another one, where I was in Awana. I loved Awana, and was distraught when we moved and I couldn't participate in the program any more. When my family first started attending here, the people made us feel like family. As time went on I started to participate in the church—I sang in the teen choir, participated in plays, danced, and even played my trumpet a couple of times in teen church.
When I first met Rev. Wallace, I looked up to him. Rev. Wallace was a younger pastor so he could relate to us. When he preached, his messages were associated with newly released music, he wore clothing similar to us, and he spoke "slang" from time to time. All that captured my interest in what he had to say. Since going to church wasn't optional in my household I started to find other things that captured my interest.
I was about 14 years old. I'd moved away from all my friends and didn't know how to make new friends, so I turned to boys. In reality, they turned to me, but I wasn't strong enough to resist. My parents gave me no freedom, and the only place they would let me run free was in church. Most of the guys I "talked" to were innocent relationships. I saw them on Sundays and Wednesdays. We sat next to each other in church, hugged, and talked on the phone sometimes.
One guy who I thought was just another "innocent" encounter didn't have the same intentions as me. One weekend we volunteered for an event at the church. During the event he escorted me to a room on the lower level of the church, turned out the lights, and began to molest me. Once I felt him pull down his pants I had to leave. At another church event, a retreat, I got on an elevator with a guy I thought was a church friend, and he began to molest me. Afterward he acted like nothing had happened.
My mom was the leader of an all-girl teen group. She'd take the girls to the movies, dinner, sleepovers, and so on. I befriended a girl named Lisa who was older than me—she was in high school while I was still in middle school. Lisa and I would always hang together during the events and she would tell me about her friend from school, Shanice. Lisa told me that Shanice had bought her some shoes. I rarely got new shoes, so I said, "I wish I could get a friend to buy me shoes."
A week later the two of us and a couple other people from teen church were hanging out in the fellowship hall. Lisa was talking about Shanice: "I miss Shanice. I'm so confused, I think I love her." Now I was confused. Then she told me, "Shanice is my girlfriend." I'm thinking, Your what? A hundred-thousand thoughts rushed through my head. You like girls? Everybody knew but me—I felt like Adam and Eve when they ate from the tree of life. I saw my life in a whole new light. That entire night that's all I thought about.
Slowly I became more curious about Lisa's "lifestyle." I wanted a girl to buy me shoes. But it was bigger than that—I wanted to try it. So I told Lisa, and she sold lesbianism to me like a new car. My parents wouldn't let me talk to boys, but I could talk to girls. My parents wouldn't let me hang out with boys, but I could hang with girls. This could work. So I turned my attention to one particular girl who all the guys in Sunday school thought was so fine. She was a pretty girl. I wanted to see if I could get her.
I got her number, we talked on the phone, and she became interested in me. I had even gained her mom's trust—she thought I was just a good friend. I told my parents about my new friend from church—the church part made a big difference. I think we even picked her up a couple times. This would never have happened if it was a boy. We would write letters and give them to each other when we saw each other; we really felt like we had deep feelings for each other.
Well, Lisa didn't believe me when I told her what I was doing, so I gave her some of the letters me and my girlfriend were writing to each other. Big mistake! One evening, when everything seemed normal, the phone rang and it was Lisa.
"Is your mom there?"
"Uh, yeah," I replied. "Why?"
"My aunt, (who was her caregiver) wants to speak to her."
I'm nervous—what could she possibly want to speak to my mom about? So I give my mom the phone. I tried to stay in the room to listen, but two minutes into the conversation she sent me out of the room. My heart was beating like a marching band.
About a half-hour later my mom comes to me and asks, "Where's your cell phone?" She takes my phone. She demands that I give her any letters I've written, and I'm now on punishment. I was crushed. I felt like Adam and Eve again. I'd never prepared for my parents finding out. I was used to being on punishment, but looking back at the situation, I was being punished for liking girls.
The word eventually got to Rev. Wallace and I was embarrassed. He was straightforward with me: "You can't serve God and be homosexual—it's not of God." That basically ended the chapter with the girl I liked from church, but it opened up a whole new world outside of church. I was changing more and more each day. My clothes started getting bigger and bigger. I started to sag my pants, I was talking more slang, and I started getting piercings, tattoos, and cut my hair shorter. I loved the attention. And the girls loved me.
I still came to church, but I always had a guilty conscience. I wanted to get back close to God. I read my Bible and prayed every night. During one event at church there was a "Holy Hip-Hop" group named Platinum Souls performing. I fell in love with what they were doing! That's what I wanted to do—"Holy Hip-Hop." I began writing my own songs, downloading beats, and recording them at a friend's house. I collaborated with a friend and another guy—we took it to another level. We reached so many people with our hip-hop music; everyone loved what we were doing.
But I was still dressing like a boy and had some "guy" tendencies. Girls would approach me after performing a gospel song, interested in me. The guys I performed with would tell me to stop grabbing my crotch when I performed—they wanted me to be more feminine. Rev. Wallace and members of the church were there throughout the journey, but nobody ever mentioned anything about my sexuality. It felt like people wanted to say something but they didn't. Nobody did.
During times when I really contemplated letting it go, nobody was there. I can remember Rev. Wallace sending me words of encouragement from time to time, but it was always me initiating the conversation. I guess Rev. Wallace was really the only person I could talk to, but he didn't know how to help me. I longed for attention, but my parents didn't understand. My sister called it a "phase." Rev. Wallace overlooked me. So I turned to friends, who led me a long way in the wrong direction. I was hurt for a long time—depressed, confused, and just going with the flow. I never had the proper guidance.
Now I'm older—mentally and spiritually mature—and God has brought me through it. I learned the long and the hard way. I just started coming back to church, and I still get the same thing from Rev. Wallace: "Hey, how are you?" My reply: "I'm good—working and going to school." It always ends with a: "Nice seeing you!" What I really need someone to ask is: "How are you, really?" "Where are you with God? How are you dealing with your sexuality?" These questions have never been asked of me. It's almost as if homosexuality is a taboo subject.
I still fight this fight alone, pressing forward one foot in front of the other—just me and God. There are a lot of fallen soldiers from that Sunday School class, but I can only speak for myself. A lot of teens are crying out for attention, love, and help. Get to know the teenagers on a personal level and be consistent. I used to have a hard spot in my heart towards some people of the church for the way I used to feel, but I'm over it now, God brought me through it.
Join us on July 21 for a GROUP Magazine Live Webcas t on "Sexual Sin" YouthMinistry.com/sex